Jenny Thompson grew up with three older brothers, a situation guaranteed to mark any little girl for life. "She was going to be either the meekest person in the world or the most outspoken," says one brother. Jenny chose the latter. When Vice President Dan Quayle was debating the merits of single motherhood with Murphy Brown, Jenny, who was raised by her divorced mother, spoke out. "He doesn't know what he's talking about; he's not a woman," said Thompson, whose hobby—lest anyone doubt her patriotism—is collecting American flags and objects decorated with them. "Children raised by their mothers are not losers."
Far from it, the 21-year-old Thompson may be the world's finest female sprint freestyler. Two years ago she became the first U.S. woman in 59 years to break the world record in the 100-meter freestyle, a 54.48 that still stands, and she won two gold medals and a silver at the Barcelona Olympics. Last August she won six golds at the Pan Pacific championships. In her spare time the Stanford junior maintains a B average as a human-biology major.
Last weekend at the NCAA women's championships in Indianapolis, Thompson led Stanford to the team title by winning the 100-yard butterfly and the 100 free in the second-fastest times ever in those events (51.81 and 47.74, respectively) and adding key legs in four relays. The only blemish on Thompson's weekend came in the 50 free, in which she placed second to Colorado State's Amy Van Dyken, who set a U.S. record of 21.77.
Thompson's early years were unusual in the upper-middle-class sport of swimming. After Jenny's parents separated when she was two, Thompson's mother, Margrid, had to scrape and save, sharing brown-bag lunches with Jenny at meets while the other swim families dined in restaurants. The whole family helped Jenny live up to the promise suggested by the little Wonder Woman swimsuit she wore as a tyke. "Her brothers built her up and cheered her on," says Margrid. Most days Margrid herself would drive 30 minutes from the family home in Georgetown, Mass., to her job as a medical technologist, 30 minutes home to pick up Jenny, 40 minutes to Dover, N.H., where Jenny trained with the Seacoast Swimming Association in a tiny pool in the felicitously named Guppey Park, and 40 minutes home again.
Perhaps because she knows the sacrifices made on her behalf, Thompson has been the most vocal U.S. swimmer in questioning the sensational times turned in of late by Chinese women swimmers, HARD WORK OR DRUGS? asked a headline in a recent issue of Swimming World magazine. Thompson has no doubts about the answer. "They've proved themselves guilty," she says. "I can say that with confidence after their National Games last September."
At that meet Chinese women swam seven of the year's 10 best times in the 50-meter free and four of the top six in the 100. "Things like that don't happen in one year," Thompson says. "I want the play in my pool to be fair."
Thompson will get to prove herself against the Chinese in September at the world championships in Rome. For now, though, she will savor her latest laurels. On Saturday night, after helping dump coach Richard Quick into the pool, Thompson followed him in with a jubilant can opener. It wasn't her last big splash.